Michael Choi, the chef and owner of Wooboi Chicken with locations in Herndon and Alexandria, does not eat the Code Blue spice mix in his own restaurant. “Code Blue is too hot for me,” he says. “I’ll stick with level two!”
So why does he make the sandwich and the tenders blindingly spicy? “Because it’s fun! A good portion (of the customers) are overconfident with how much spices they can actually handle. It’s always very entertaining to see how they react after eating real fire,” says Choi.
Would I be like the team of professional athletes who each bit into a single Code Blue tender and left to cry in pain? Or more like the high school student who quietly shot down an entire bidding basket on her own? He had to find out.
When I ordered my Code Blue sando, the counter clerk was hesitant to mark my order. “It has Carolina peppers,” he almost whispered. “That’s OK?”
And that’s not all. To that pepper, which is just a few Scoville heat units below US-grade police pepper spray, are mixed Ethiopian mitmita and berbere spice blends, and ultra-hot scorpion and ghost peppers. The result is a conflagration that combines flavors like cumin and turmeric with its own blast of heat.
My first impression was that the meaty piece of crispy chicken looked very appealing. My second was that it smelled spicy, but not threatening. The initial bite had a strong taste of the earthy aromas of berbere with a hint of sweetness. Choi says it’s important for him to make the spice mix taste attractive, not just hit diners over the head with heat.
It took me about a minute before I realized the power of the blow I was about to take. My heart rate sped up. My right eye dropped a juicy tear. I was numb. But I persisted. By then, he was in something of an altered state. The fluffy potato bun, which was soaked in the thick layer of cider salad and a bit of mayonnaise-based return sauce, felt more cushiony, as if it could rest inside. The spicy pickles on the sandwich and the crinkle cut fries were my only respite from the out-of-body experience.
I finished? No, but it was more a matter of ability than pain. That started later, anyway. On my way back to the office, a wave of nausea hit me. My stomach bubbled. My palate may not have been as altered as I expected, but the rest of my digestive system has. My stomach ached like it hadn’t since I was a child.
When I got home, my other half suggested that we have an Indian dinner. For the first time in my life, I said no to one of my favorite kitchens. But despite my prolonged discomfort, I felt a certain sense of accomplishment.
As Choi says, “There are so many adventurous people out there. Not many people get past the first or second bite, but congratulations to everyone who tried it! “And kudos to Choi for creating not just a sandwich, but a spicy phenomenon.
This story originally appeared in our January issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.